E3 Recap | Xbox
No Ex-Spencer spared…
The dust has settled one more year for Microsoft’s annual E3 briefing. This year was different than most for the company with their Sony counterparts opting to give E3 a miss, further adding to the growing notion that E3 needs to change to keep companies coming back. Regardless, this gave Microsoft a good opportunity to provide viewers with a line-up of announcements to get gamers re-invested. Mostly, they succeeded in this goal. Whilst not entirely hitting it out of the park like they could and probably should have, 2019’s briefing felt somewhat different to the usual game montages of yesteryear. A year where Microsoft delivered a new direction they are taking to gamers as opposed to the previous years. Previous conferences had felt just solid low-risk conferences that were always fun but never really intriguing. So, what did Microsoft give us this year? This year, they went for Keanu Reeves appearing, basking in heavenly light. They went for a LEGO expansion for Forza Horizon 4. They went for a Blair Witch horror game. These slightly bonkers reveals and surprises felt like the company that wanted to pull out all the stops on their yearly business pitch. So, what did Phil Spencer and the gang get right and wrong?
Walking Halo-ed grounds…
It is not hyperbole to say Microsoft’s games selection this year was superb, an eclectic mix of indie gems, triple AAA behemoths and the products of last year’s announcement of the additional Xbox Game Studios. For those fans of odder games, Spiritfarer looked stunning, full of charm and a potentially emotionally resonant experience. 12 Minutes sees Annapurna Interactive publishing another mysterious game being another game to capitalize on the familiar ‘Groundhog Day’ concept. Add to this the creepy looking trailer for a Blair Witch game, the first licensed games since the year 2000. Fans wanting to see what the latest acquisitions of Xbox Game Studios had been spending those precious resources on got Ninja Theory’s vibrant 4v4 game Bleeding Edge and the announcement of Tim Schafer’s Double Fine studio being acquired brought us a funny and promising trailer for Psychonauts 2, an acquisition that brings Xbox Game Studios to 15 unique studios. That said, you can not help but wonder if the creative restriction will hurt Double Fine in the long run, a studio that’s brought us some of the most memorable projects in recent memory. Time will tell, but for now, their future has potential.
In addition, some big hitters got Xbox fans excited for big franchises to continue well. Forza Horizon 4’s Lego Speed Champions proves that everything is awesome for the franchise and everything, like Batman, is better with Lego. The conference closed with an excellently polished trailer for Halo Infinite, with the Chief looking as good as he is ever been and ready to hopefully pick up the franchise after the disappointingly laborious story of Halo 5. Ori and The Will of the Wisps provided a release date of February 11th 2020, a date that feels so far away, but another gorgeous trailer highlighting numerous massive bosses accompanied it to satiate my thirst for Ori content. Cyberpunk 2077 provided another fantastic story trailer accompanied by what may be the best celebrity appearance at a video game conference in the form of the “breath-taking” Keanu Reeves. It was a conference full of genuinely exciting games.
Gears of where?
That said, given the amount of games, the lack of gameplay was stark. This is not necessarily a problem. After all, E3 is a multi-day event and building anticipation for your projects is what is required. So, pulling off highly stylish cinematic trailers is an extremely attention-grabbing way to do so. Take Elden Ring for example. The trailer was a highly cinematic lore-based trailer, yet it still is exciting since we have a cool world being built by George R.R. Martin and Hidetaka Miyazaki. The M&M partnership could be great. Some more gameplay would have been much more interesting to break from the complete CG-fest but it was especially disappointing for the Gears 5 presentation. Given the game’s rapidly approaching 10th September release date, seeing anything would have been reassuring. Instead, the story and horde are locked behind vague proclamations of a new Escape mode and changes to Horde mode that only give cause for concern rather than answering the questions the game has around it. Instead, a rather lacklustre presentation for one of Microsoft’s cornerstone franchises was a damp squib, bringing down an otherwise promising collection of software.
Miss Scarlett at the conference theatre with the cloud saves!
The other big talking point concerned that small detail about Project Scarlett, the next iteration of Xbox console. That seemingly is not a home console. We didn’t get much info beyond a video illustrating a console that is 4x as powerful as the Xbox One X with 120fps. (No information on how many terraflops. Must be too many to count.) However, the details combined with the coverage of xCloud turning Xbox One into a server to stream games from the console to anywhere with a screen and the big sell of the Xbox Game Pass Ultimate that does indicate Microsoft setting their stall in a new direction towards a more service-based Xbox dedicated to streaming games of the highest quality wherever they wish. Whilst the console seems like a heavyweight, the briefing was light on physical details on the console’s look (A disc drive has been confirmed post-briefing). That said, Microsoft did a good job in stating this direction. However, their move into a streaming based service does raise some queries: Is Project Scarlett worth it as a home console? Why would I not just get a PC? What exclusives will I get on Project Scarlett that I can’t get anywhere else? These questions will need to be addressed by Microsoft to make this hyperbole around Project Scarlett’s streaming quality worth it. It is a direction that is bold and grand but comes at a very real risk of undermining their own product as a home platform. Time will tell.
Overall, the conference felt like Microsoft taking their steps forward. Microsoft delivered on the games front in spite of a lack of actual gameplay and unveiled their business future. There were the usual hallmarks of a Microsoft conference. Phil Spencer wearing t-shirts hinting at stuff. The ID@Xbox montage. Except this year brought us a spark we have not seen from them. For Microsoft, this could be a conference to look back on as a huge turning point. Seemingly for the better.
The Highs and Lows:
Best Games: Ori and The Will of the Wisps, Halo Infinite, Blair Witch
Hidden Gem: Spiritfarer
Most Disappointing: Gears 5
Weirdest cameo: WWE Wrestlers Xavier Woods, AJ Styles and Tyler Breeze for 5 seconds in the Gears 5 presentation.
Biggest surprise, best presenter, best moment: Keanu “Our Lord and Saviour” Reeves.